Today I go from talking about my greatest disappointment in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (so far) to one of my happiest finds. A couple of weeks ago, I had to quickly build a last-minute encounter to fill a plot hole for my mid-level players. One thing I recall from a class I took in fantasy fiction years ago is that the suspense in horror fiction comes from not knowing what the heroes are up against or what it can do, so I needed an unfamiliar monster to build the encounter around. I found it in the bodak.
The bodak is a CR 6 undead creature, immune to lightning, poison, and being charmed or frightened. It’s resistant to cold, fire and necrotic damage, along with physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It’s proficient in Perception and Stealth, has 120 feet of darkvision and is hypersensitive to sunlight, so it’s strictly nocturnal and/or subterranean. Its physical abilities are uniformly high; its Wisdom and Charisma are above average, but its Intelligence is low, so its behavior is mechanistic and compulsive.
It has an unarmed melee attack, but its real power comes in the combination of its distinctive features: Aura of Annihilation, Death Gaze and Withering Gaze. Death Gaze and Aura of Annihilation, in particular, are a nasty combination. Death Gaze hits at the beginning of an opponent’s turn; Aura of Annihilation, at the end of it.
Death Gaze forces anyone within 30 feet who can see the bodak’s black, vacant eyes to make a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or take 3d10 psychic damage. If the opponent fails the save by 5 or more, he or she falls down mostly-dead on the spot, unless he or she is immune to being frightened. The effect can be avoided by shielding one’s eyes, but of course this grants disadvantage on any attempt to attack the bodak.
Aura of Annihilation is a “toggle” feature that can be switched on or off as a bonus action, though there’s no reason for it not to be on by default, nor any reason that I can see to turn it off. When it’s on, any creature (aside from fiends and other undead) that’s within 30 feet of the bodak when his/her/its turn ends (the creature’s turn, that is, not the bodak’s) takes 5 hp of necrotic damage from it. In other words, just being around the bodak is unhealthy.
Both of these effects take place on the opponent’s turn, not on the bodak’s, so the bodak is constantly doing damage, even when it’s not taking any action. On its own turn, it has the Withering Gaze, a ranged ability that does 4d10 necrotic damage on a failed DC 13 Constitution save, half that on a success—quite a bit more than its unarmed attack, which does only 1d4 + 2 bludgeoning plus 2d8 necrotic. Really, the only reason for the bodak to use its fists is when it can’t see its opponents—e.g., when someone has dropped a darkness spell, which even darkvision can’t penetrate, or when they’re invisible.
Given this constellation of features, the bodak’s approach to combat is basically, “Come at me, bro.” Attacking a bodak is like fighting a fire: you have to not only douse the flames but do so before you get burned to death yourself. Any and every foe that comes to dispatch it has to run the gantlet of its Withering Gaze, Death Gaze and Aura of Annihilation.
Thus, a bodak holes up in a dark lair, where it can keep its eyes on any path(s) of approach—being able to see all its opponents outweighs any other positional consideration. Because of this, it may actually position itself against a wall, just so that no one can get behind it. Also, any approach(es) to its lair will be wide enough to pass through in single file only.
With respect to target selection, certain opponents are higher on its list of priorities: clerics and paladins who can turn or destroy the undead; berserker barbarians with the Mindless Rage feature (which grants immunity to being frightened); anyone with a magic weapon; and anyone who deals acid, thunder, force, psychic or radiant damage. It focuses its Withering Gaze on these enemies first; if no one meets the criteria, it’s opportunistic.
A bodak won’t flee unless turned, and when the turning wears off, it will come right back. Its murderous compulsion is strong, and it won’t be deterred by any injury that doesn’t destroy it outright.
However, bodaks don’t always stay in their lairs. They may, for instance, wander afield in search of victims (the flavor text ties them closely to the Demon Lord Orcus and characterizes them as agents of his vengeful will, but I think they’re also dandy merely as menacing spooks periodically preying on residents of a nearby settlement). A bodak encountered outside its lair will Dash (action) back to it, if possible, so that it can enjoy the benefit of channeling its foes through a single approach. (This isn’t fleeing—it’s a strategic retreat.) If it can’t do that, it will reposition itself on the field of battle to give itself the best view of all its opponents and the lowest chance of being outflanked. It will never stay out under open sky close enough to dawn to be caught by the rising sun. It always returns to its lair well before then. Particularly clever player characters may be waiting for it there when it gets back.
Next: beholders, revisited.